Brought to book: How my relative captured Auschwitz commandant (The JC)

When Thomas Harding phoned up the Imperial War Museum and asked whether, as he had recently been told, his German Jewish great-uncle might have brought one of the highest-ranking Nazi officers to justice, the woman on the other end of the line burst out laughing, doubtless imagining him to be a fantasist. secretive hero Hanns Alexander

“She thought it was the most ridiculous thing, so that wasn’t very encouraging,” he recalls. “But my journalist nose had a sense that maybe there was something there. I don’t know about most people but I hadn’t grown up with any Jewish avenging war heroes in my family, so I was intrigued.”

As things transpired, his nose was on to something. Harding’s relative Hanns Alexander was indeed a Nazi hunter — among the first. And the story of his mission to track down and arrest Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz — recounted at his 2006 funeral — was no exaggeration.

As Harding explains in a new biography, Hanns and Rudolf, Alexander fled his homeland for Britain after the Nazis came to power. He joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and was dispatched to Belsen just a few weeks after it was liberated. With no experience, and, at that point, no knowledge of the fate of loved ones who had not escaped Germany, he was assigned as an interpreter for the fledgling war crimes investigation teams, quickly winning a reputation for his interrogative skills. After working to trace another architect of the Third Reich, Gustav Simon, Alexander and his colleagues began hunting for Höss.

Even by the standards of Nazi brutality, Höss stands out. Charged with turning Auschwitz into an efficient mass killing site — which he did with the installation of the gas chambers — his testimony at Nuremberg cited “improvements” to the system of extermination. By 1946, he was hiding in broad daylight as a farmer in rural Germany. Thanks to the perseverance and fortitude of Alexander and his peers, Höss was captured, tried, and subsequently executed at the camp where he had sent some 1,300,000 innocents to their deaths.

Yet Alexander kept largely silent about his exploits, so much so that family such as Harding, and his cousin James, the BBC news director, were in the dark about the war hero in their midst.

“He was definitely traumatised after Belsen,” Harding explains. “He talked about clearing up mass graves and seeing people in terrible shapes. And then he was asked to interrogate the guards, most of whom had come from Auschwitz. There had been rumours in the newspapers but he may have been the first person to actually hear, directly from the perpetrators, about how the selections took place, what happened as people were taken off transports. It would have been horrific.”

There was also the issue of the methods used to capture Höss. “They took axe handles with them. There’s a reason they did that. I think some things happened which may well have scared him about himself. We don’t know if he killed anyone but when Höss was arrested he was beaten up. Some people would say, well that was justified, he deserved it. But I think maybe Hanns got scared by that violence, that there were things that happened that he was not necessarily proud of.”

By and large, we have tended to shy away from discussing the darker sides of the fight for Holocaust retribution. Harding — whose book tells the stories of both Alexander and Höss — argues that this needs to change. It’s more comforting to treat Höss as a monster and Hanns as a victim, but that’s not the real world. It’s much more troubling to see them as the result of their actions and millions of decisions and crossroads. If we forget that, we will forget that other people can do the same thing and will not be able to stop this.

“There’s no relativism here. Höss was one of the worst criminals of all time, a man who had to face justice and I’m very glad he did. However, I do believe you can keep hold of that and understand him as a human being, because to demonise him as a monster is to undermine the terribleness of the crime.”

In researching his great-uncle’s story, Harding came across a chilling example of failure to confront the truth of the past. Reading Höss’s prison letters to his wife and children, Harding was “moved by them and was very conflicted for obvious reasons”. So he tracked down Höss’s grandson — the two visited Auschwitz together in 2009 — and learnt how the family had essentially rebooted history in 1947, avoiding discussion of what had happened.

“I then found Höss’s daughter, who lives near Washington DC. I found that conversation with her deeply distressing, because she was living this all-American life. She described her father as the best father in the world. She remembered him reading to her, going on sled rides, taking boat trips out on the river behind Auschwitz. She slept under her parents’ wedding picture. And even though she was aware of the cultural experiences of the Holocaust that we are — like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List — she was not able to integrate that with her personal experience of her father.”

After six years of research, Harding is looking forward to hearing people’s reactions. More importantly, he hopes it will encourage others to come forward. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out because that generation really was reluctant to talk,” he says. “Even when I shared my book with somebody recently, she said her father was part of the group involved with the arrest of Höss, but she knew nothing about it. And for me, it’s really important to hear these stories about fighting for justice, fighting back, because growing up I didn’t.”

It has, he says, been a fascinating journey. “We are like most north London Jewish families, in and out of each other’s lives and yet we just didn’t talk about it. The idea of some kind of avenging Jew in the family — I thought it was something to be proud of and I wanted to find out more.” Luckily for us, he did.

This post was originally published in the Jewish Chronicle. Read the original here.


Helen Thomas: why it isn’t about free speech

Several months ago there was a great big furore over when Daily Mail columnist wrote what was deemed a homophobic piece. Jan Moir’s murmurings about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately led to a host of complaints to the PCC and a storm of upset on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
Moir lived to write another day, but another journalist who didn’t watch what she said has not been so lucky.
Yesterday, amidst much pressure, veteran White House reporter
Helen Thomas announced her resignation from the Hearst news agency. Given her age – 89 – and the fact that she has been a Washington writer since Kennedy, her stepping down is perhaps unsurprising.

But of course, her age had nothing to do with it. Thomas walked only in the wake of a scandal of her own making.

She told a Rabbi, on video and during a White House Jewish Heritage Month event no less, that all Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

Around the comment-sphere opinion has been mixed about whether she should have been fired (she was also sacked by her agency and asked not to speak at scheduled school event) or whether it was ‘censorship’ to call for her head.
Most prominently, Roy Greenslade weighed in with this:

 “So, in the land of the free, where freedom of speech is guaranteed under the constitution, a person who expresses what are deemed to be controversial views is effectively gagged…

 “… one can see clearly how people in America who are willing to express anti-establishment opinions are demonised, marginalised and finally excluded from public debate.”
But with due respect, he’s wrong. This isn’t a case about free speech, or the lack thereof.

Free speech, as Voltaire would put it, is about defending the right to share abhorrent opinions. Thomas has the absolute right to do so, to say what she likes about anything from Israel to Lady Gaga, (and incidentally, her resignation will not prevent her from airing her views elsewhere), but not when she sits as a professional in the White House press room.
She can be as offensive as she likes, but to do so from a position of power is irresponsible.

And if she wishes to criticise Israel – as is her prerogative – she should do so with reasoned argument not narrow-minded slur.

Journalists can, and should, share their opinions. But it is a basic principle that fair comment should be based on true facts.
By calling for the Jews to go back to Europe Thomas forgets that a high proportion of Israeli’s were born in Israel and have lived there for generations, and that many of the immigrants to the country come from the Middle East, not Europe.

The reference to Europe, with its clear resonance of Holocaust-era attitudes, was particularly troubling from a woman who lived through the atrocities of the Second World War. It was a cheap comment, perhaps meant as a throwaway jibe, but cheap nonetheless.

And, whatever you think of Israel, Thomas’ comment was not simply a criticism of policy. She referred to “all Jews”, yet the Israeli government by no means represents the opinions of every Israeli – the intransigence of the Knesset is testament to that – nor indeed every Jew.
President Obama
called it “the right decision” for her to resign, and it was.

Substitute “Jews” with blacks, Muslims, gays, or any other minority, and the insult would be just as abominable and deserving of the same outcry.

Journalists should not shy away from controversy, and others from Moir to Thomas will continue to make such inflammatory comments. There are few writers out there who are not also passionate opinion-holders.
And most of the time, it’s OK to disagree. But in a just, democratic society, free speech must still be balanced with the prevention of bigotry.